Prostrations on Sunday and during the Holy Fifty Days in the Coptic Orthodox Tradition
The British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate is committed to following the spiritual tradition of the Coptic Orthodoxy of which we are a part. This commitment requires a constant vigilance to ensure that without losing our British ethos we are also knowledgeable of the rites and spirituality of the ancient Orthodox community to which we have been joined. At this time of the Holy Fifty Days there are a variety of ritual traditions which especially come into focus, and one of these is the prohibition on making prostrations during this season. His Grace Bishop Mettaous, writing in his excellent volume, The Spirituality of the Rites of the Holy Liturgy in the Coptic Orthodox Church, says of prostrations,
The Church does not allow prostration on Saturdays and Sundays or during the fifty days of Pentecost or after having Holy Communion.1
His Grace Bishop Mettaous is very clear in his instruction. It is not permitted to prostrate on Saturday, Sunday or during the fifty days of Pentecost, nor after having received communion at any time. Often the origins of various Coptic, and even universal Orthodox traditions and practices is lost in the passage of centuries. But in fact this teaching about prostrations has a very clear history which can be documented back to the earliest times.
There are several aspects to the practice of prostration, which is essentially placing the body in a kneeling position with the forehead lowered to touch the ground. It has always been used in human history as a demonstration of submission. The black obelisk of Shalmaneser III shows King Jehu of Israel prostrate before him after the conquest in 841 BC. Even today it is the practice of devout Coptic Orthodox Christians to prostrate themselves in such a manner before respected bishops, or spiritual elders. There is no craven fear in such an attitude of submission, but rather a deep respect for the person before whom the prostration is made.
Another aspect, also universally present in human history, is the prostration of the worshipper before some idol, or religious symbol, and in the case of Orthodox Christians during services of prayer and worship. The Old Testament often describes various people as prostrating in worship. When Moses went up Sinai to meet with God we read,
And Moses making haste, bowed down prostrate unto the earth.2
In similar circumstances, when our Lord Jesus Christ was transfigured, we read that the Apostles Peter, James and John, were witnesses to this event.
And the disciples hearing fell upon their face, and were very much afraid.3
Extending this use of prostration in worship we can also understand and appreciate the use of prostration as an expression of repentance. We read that Moses when the Israelites had sinned against God by making the golden calf and worshipping it,
..lay prostrate before the Lord forty days and nights, in which I humbly besought him, that he would not destroy you as he had threatened.4
Now all of these types of prostration are known and practiced in the Coptic Orthodox Church, even in our own time. There is the prostration of respect, the prostration of worship, and the prostration of repentance. But in the period of the Holy Fifty days, and on all Saturdays and Sundays, and on any occasion when communion has been received, the Church, in her wisdom, has instructed that the faithful should not make any of these types of prostrations.
If we consider some of the various statements of the Fathers, and the canons of the ecumenical councils, we will see that this prohibition is most ancient, and is universal in scope. All of the Orthodox Churches, whether Oriental Orthodox or Byzantine, are still aware of this prohibition, even if, in various places, the ancient discipline has been allowed to be ignored. But His Grace Bishop Mettaous shows us clearly, in his own explanation of the rites of the Coptic Orthodox Church, that as members of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate this ancient restriction remains entirely in force.
Among the Fathers and witnesses of the early Church, we find that Tertullian, writing about 210 AD says,
On the Lord’s Day (i.e. Sunday) we consider it improper to fast or to kneel; and we also enjoy this freedom from Pascha until Pentecost.5
Tertullian is the source of many other very early practices in the Church. Elsewhere he describes the making of the sign of the cross, showing that it is also a very early Christian act. We can see that he accurately describes the practice of the Church to the present day. Just as we still keep Sunday and the period of the Holy Fifty days as being free from fasting, so we have always abstained in these same days from kneeling and prostrating in prayer, whether in worship or repentance.
The same description of the unwritten tradition of the Church is found in the writings of Jerome in about 330 AD, who says,
There are many other observances in the Church which, though due to tradition, have acquired the authority of the written law, as, for instance, the practice of not praying on bended knees on Sunday.
This description of a prohibition on praying on bended knees may be taken to include both kneeling in an upright position, and kneeling with the head to the ground as in a full prostration. It is interesting that by the time of Jerome the prohibition was so universally acknowledged that it was considered as having originated in the most distant past, and had the force of a law which was not contradicted.
Perhaps it might be suggested that this ancient instruction was not one that applied in Egypt, but John Cassian, that faithful recorder of the life and teaching of the Desert Fathers, writes in 365 AD,
This, too, we ought to know, that from the evening of Saturday which precedes the Sunday, up to the following evening, among the Egyptians they never kneel, nor from Easter to Pentecost; nor do they at these times observe a rule of fasting.6
Once again we see the same connection between the regulation of fasting and that of prostrations. If we accept the rules about not fasting on Sunday, or during the Holy Fifty days, then we are not able to deny the force of the same prohibition on making prostrations or kneeling in prayer and worship. Of course in this passage John Cassian is particularly describing the practice of the Egyptian monks, but it seems entirely reasonable to conclude that all the Egyptian Christians kept this same practice, and abstained from making prostrations during these times and seasons.
That this is the case seems to be clear from a second Egyptian witness. Pope Peter of Alexandria, the Seal of Martyrs, in his collection of canons, intended to govern the Egyptian Church, says,
Wednesday is to be fasted, because then the Jews conspired to betray Jesus; Friday, because he then suffered for us. We keep the Lord’s Day as a day of joy, because on that day our Lord rose. Our tradition is not to kneel on that day.7
This is a useful text because we are given an indication as to why we should not kneel or prostrate at these times. It is because ‘We keep the Lord’s Day as a day of joy’. This is not the complete reason why we do not kneel or prostrate, but it is one aspect. Even in worship our prostration has an element of humiliation and repentance, and on Sunday, the day of our good Saviour, we are not to express such feelings, rather we are to be filled with joy, being raised ourselves by the resurrection of our Lord. But the text is also useful because it is clearly an instruction which had force among the ordinary faithful of the Alexandrian Church. When Pope Peter provides this instruction saying, ‘Our tradition is not to kneel on that day’, we are able to understand that as faithful Orthodox Christians in the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria it remains the case that it is not our tradition to kneel and prostrate on Sunday.
Now it might be said that these are only the instructions and observations of individual bishops and Fathers, and that therefore their conclusions are of limited scope. But in fact this issue was raised in the context of the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, and in the collection of canons associated with that council we read,
Forasmuch as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.8
In this important canon XX we see that there is still an attention to the practice of prostration on Sundays and during the Holy Fifty days. Indeed it is surely a witness to the great antiquity of this part of the Christian year that it appears in such early texts as a fixed and universally observed season. But it is also interesting that there is a constant connection between the status of Sunday, as a little Pascha, and the Holy Fifty days. The same spiritual attitude is to be observed in each case. The focus of our prayer and worship is the risen Lord, who has raised us up with Him, and who makes us sons and daughters of God in the resurrection. Therefore we find that the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, a council which is undoubtedly of great authority in the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, teaches us, or rather instructs and commands us, that during Sundays and the Holy Fifty days we should not prostrate or kneel but should offer our prayer while standing.
Among the early Fathers we find St Basil, writing in his book on the Holy Spirit, also describes the practice of the Church in regard to prostration in prayer. He says,
Thus we all look to the East at our prayers, but few of us know that we are seeking our own old country, Paradise, which God planted in Eden in the East. We pray standing, on the first day of the week, but we do not all know the reason. On the day of the resurrection (or ‘standing again’ Grk. anastasis) we remind ourselves of the grace given to us by standing at prayer, not only because we rose with Christ, and are bound to ‘seek those things which are above’, but because the day seems to us to be in some sense an image of the age which we expect….Of necessity, then, the church teaches her own foster children to offer their prayers on that day standing, to the end that through continual reminder of the endless life we may not neglect to make provision for our removal thither. Moreover all Pentecost is a reminder of the resurrection expected in the age to come. For that one and first day, if seven times multiplied by seven, completes the seven weeks of the holy Pentecost; for, beginning at the first, Pentecost ends with the same, making fifty revolutions through the like intervening days. And so it is a likeness of eternity, beginning as it does and ending, as in a circling course, at the same point. On this day the rules of the church have educated us to prefer the upright attitude of prayer, for by their plain reminder they, as It were, make our mind to dwell no longer in the present but in the future. Moreover every time we fall upon our knees and rise from off them we shew by the very deed that by our sin we fell down to earth, and by the loving kindness of our Creator were called back to heaven.9
St Basil provides us with an insight into why we stand in prayer, rather than prostrating ourselves, during Sunday and the Holy Fifty days. It is because we have been made to ‘stand again’ by the resurrection of Christ. We have be recalled to heaven, and our hearts and minds are to be lifted heavenwards in prayer, rather than being brought down to the earth. Once again we not that St Basil does not speak of this practice of abstaining from prostrations as an opinion, or a personal reflection, but describes it as one of ‘the rules of the Church’.
In later centuries we find that the same universal practice was adopted in Egypt. The canons of Ibn Alassal from 1240 AD teach us,
But there are times in which we are commanded not to kneel like the Pentecost Season, the feasts of the Lord and after receiving communion. (Chapter 13)
Do not prostrate yourself on Sundays and the Lord’s feasts because they are days of joy (Chapter 19)
We can see that the instruction about which His Grace Bishop Mettaous reminds us is a universal rule in the Church and applies to all Orthodox Christians in all times and places. We are not excused from obedience to such a universal instruction, as if we were wiser or more spiritual than all of the Fathers of the Church who have preceded us. On the contrary, it is necessary for us to learn wisdom and to grow in our Orthodox spiritual life by meditating on the reason for this prohibition.
When we celebrate the Liturgy we sing together, ‘This is the day which the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it’. And this psalm teaches us the attitude we are to have when we worship. The celebration of the Liturgy is not a matter of concentrating on our own unworthiness, but is a time to lift our eyes and our hearts towards the one who is worthy of all honour and glory. The Holy Fifty days are not a time to concentrate on our own weakness, but to reflect on the great gift of salvation which has been granted to us and which we have participated in during the Feast of the Resurrection, and which is completed for us in the gift of the Holy Spirit which we look forward to at the Feast of Pentecost.
There is a time and a season for all things. Indeed the Church provides us with 210 days each year in which we may fast, and on these days, and those others weekdays which are not in the season of the Holy Fifty days we are able to kneel and prostrate ourselves in worship and repentance. But the Orthodox Christian life is not entirely one of repentance and of being filled with a proper sense of our own sins and faults. Therefore in her wisdom the Church also leads us to spend each Saturday and Sunday, and the Holy Fifty days, standing in prayer.
As members of the British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate let us be careful to observe this tradition. Indeed it is more than a tradition, it is a universal rule in the Orthodox Church and we are required to grow in our spiritual experience of Orthodox life through obedience to instructions such as these.
Father Peter Farrington
- H.G. Bishop Mettaous. The Spirituality and Rites of the Liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church. p.46.
- Exodus 34:8
- Matthew 17:6
- Deuteronomy 9:25
- Tertullian, On the Crown, ANF Vol 3 ch. 3
- John Cassian, Institutes, Book II chapter 18
- Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume XIV/Additional Canons 4/Part 4
- NPNF2-14. The Seven Ecumenical Councils
- Basil NPNF2-08. On the Holy Spirit